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Help Cure Plant Blindness through Citizen Science! Participate in TreeVersity at the Arnold Arboretum

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science Salon
By Guest
Dec 2, 2017 9:19 PMNov 20, 2019 2:11 AM


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The Arboretum’s Living Collection contains over 15,000 plants representing some 4,000 kinds of trees, shrubs, and vines, including the Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha), extinct in the wild for over 200 years. (Photo by Danny Schissler, ©2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College) By Jon Hetman (Associate Director of External Relations and Communications) and Danny Schissler (Research Assistant, Friedman Lab) Boston, MA- If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is sharing more details than ever before about its 15,000 collected plants. The best part—you can help make it happen! In October, the Arboretum launched TreeVersity, a citizen science project designed to collect information on some 25,000 images of the trees, shrubs, and vines growing across its Olmsted-designed landscape. Since its founding in 1872, Arboretum staff have used photography to help document the plants the institution collects, grows, and preserves for scientific study and horticultural display. Thousands of historical images—captured by famed explorers like Ernest Henry Wilson, Joseph Rock, and Frank Meyer—have long been available for viewing and downloading through the online Image Archive of the Harvard University Libraries. Recently, the Arboretum made thousands of contemporary images of its plants—from Abelia chinensis (Chinese abelia) to Zenobia pulverulenta (honeycup)—available on its own website. This extensive Plant Image Database serves everyone from botanists to armchair plant explorers as a free online tool to aid plant identification, connect plant images and plant information, and promote the study and appreciation of biodiversity.

TreeVersity volunteers will learn about plant science and explore a stunning visual catalog of the Arboretum’s Living Collections. (Photos by William Friedman, ©2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College) As a constantly developing resource for reference and discovery, the Plant Image Database will continue to develop as additional digital archives become available. “Our goal,” says Arboretum Director William (Ned) Friedman, “is to share these images in classrooms, with garden clubs, and with all manner of plant lovers around the world to help advance a cure for the preventable human disease known as ‘plant blindness’.” “Plant Blindness”, described by the Botanical Society of America as an “inability to see or notice plants in one’s own environment”, is a growing challenge for future stewards of the earth’s ecosystems. As threats to biodiversity loom large, researchers and educators must work to foster an awareness and appreciation of plants and the role they play in the biosphere. To aid in this mission, the Plant Image Database serves as a public resource, allowing users to discover a world of botany from their own computers and explore a renowned collection of diverse plants from far corners of the globe. To make this resource more useful to scientists, teachers, students, gardeners, and anyone interested in learning more about plants, the Arboretum has teamed with Zooniverse, the world’s largest online platform for people-powered research. Zooniverse crowd-sources data collection for scientific studies, using the help of hundreds of thousands of volunteers who log on to assist professional researchers.

Using the Zooniverse citizen science platform, TreeVersity volunteers will classify images from the Arboretum’s Plant Image Database by identifying plant parts and other features. (Image courtesy of TreeVersity, ©2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College) In October, Zooniverse began hosting TreeVersity, a project the Arboretum hopes will inspire plant enthusiasts and biodiversity champions to contribute descriptive metadata for the plant images it shares, including morphological and phenological features such as flower/inflorescence, leaf/needle, fruit/seed, bark, and autumn leaf color. With the support of Arboretum staff members and trained botanists, TreeVersity volunteers will help to expand essential browsing and searching functions of the Arboretum’s Plant Image Database while learning about plant biology and exploring the Arboretum’s collections. TreeVersity launched on Zooniverse with approximately 10,000 images in need of categorization by volunteers. As the project progresses, the Arboretum’s Plant Image Database will have improved functionality as an educational resource—and another important layer of documentation on the Arboretum’s renowned living collections. Founded in 1872 as the first public arboretum in North America, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is a leading center for the study of plants and biodiversity and a cherished 281-acre landscape open to the public year round. One of the most comprehensive and best documented collections of temperate woody plants in the world, the Arboretum promotes the understanding and appreciation of plants through world-class research and educational programs for all ages.

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